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- ICA, London »
So I suppose the wider context is; what do Battles mark II stand for? While forums and music nerds second guess the album with bated breath, all there really is to go on is one single. If you care, you’ve probably heard ‘Ice Cream’ by now and come to an opinion on whether or not it’s for you. Whichever side of the fence you find yourself on, it’s certainly different. When someone as quixotic as Tyondai Braxton leaves your group, for good or ill, things are gonna change. No disrespect to the rest of the lads, but how many other members of Battles can you name without a quick Google search? Coming back off the ropes with something as brilliant as ‘Ice Cream’ then (in case you are still undecided, yes it is great) is no small thing and Battles' first UK show as a three-piece was an extension of this defiance.
First things first, the question of how to incorporate the legacy of Tyondai’s vocals was neatly sidestepped by not playing any old material. At all. There was a tantalising 30 seconds of the beat for ‘Race In’ before it was bruised and mutilated out of all recognition. Any nerves that may have been present in the group about stepping out from the shadow of Braxton were not evident in their manner. There was something nonchalant in the strut of Ian Williams as he walked on, suited and quaffed, standing loose-limbed between an array of laptops, sequencers and keyboards. Or in Dave Konopka’s half-bow before he picked up his guitar; silent and hands clasped in a payer motion, eyes flicked to the crowd then back to the stage. For all the muted swagger on display, a set full of new songs with no introductions is still a pretty hard sell, even to the open-minded crowds the ICA draws. The wild hand of experimentation guiding the new material left a lot of the crowd feeling slightly peripheral. A quick glance around revealed a whole lot more chin-scratching than dancing. This wasn’t anywhere near the infamous petulance of Blur’s B-sides sets or a particularly abrasive Throbbing Gristle gig, but it was clear from the outset that the band were setting their own pace and the audience would either have to keep up or fall behind.
A few songs in then and the mongrel-pop hit of ‘Ice Cream’ is starting to look like a red herring for pointers about the new Battles sound. It’s still concerned with rhythm and its execution through melody, still anchored around the awesome drumming of John Stanier, but this time around less of the directness of Mirrored is evident. Battles seem more concerned with taking the long way around these days. The group still stand at the intersection between jazz and post-rock, but prog is fighting hard for floorspace in the new material. Prog in its cleanest sense that is, less Genesis and more the kind of progression Ornette Coleman brought to jazz, or Dan Deacon has brought to electronic music. Space and rules are harder to come by in the new Battles material. As tight as the band seemed, there was a fizz and unpredictability about the set at the ICA which suggests that the band are still figuring out exactly how the new stuff works in a live setting.
In the midst of this wash of upheaval, it’s hard to blame the sections of the crowd pining for the band to drop ‘Atlas’ or ‘Leyendecker’ so they could get their breath back. Once the new tracks with vocals came though, especially ‘Ice Cream’ and Gary Numan vehicle ‘My Machines’, the mood perceptibly lightened and the band reacted by playing with a greater surety. Riffs and beeps which had previously veered close to appearing scatty gradually made more sense. By the time the encore came around and Williams asked the crowd if they were into MIDI files, proceeding to manipulate a sample of some Jamaican guy singing while mucking around with a Theremin and various synths, the crowd was hanging on every improbable note. It’s hard to analyse a set which was so self-affirmingly new and unfamiliar, but if there were sections of the gig which weren’t immediately loveable, Battles were nevertheless thoroughly engaging from start to finish. One thing that came through crystal clear is that the Braxton era is long gone, and now this is happening.
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